Neural pathways, synapses, brain plasticity… The neuroscience of baby brain development has been the subject of media coverage, debate and a certain amount of hype in recent years. But what does it mean to parents? John Hoffman worked with Stuart Shanker, co-author of Early Years Study 2* and York University professor of psychology and philosophy, to dig out the research that can help parents understand their vital role in supporting early brain development.
1. Nurture influences nature
We’ve heard about the nature versus nurture debate. What determines how a child turns out—the genes she was born with or the influence of her family, school and community? Savvy people (and sensible parents) have been saying that both nature and nurture are important.
Now studies from the new field of epigenetics show that environment and experience, including nurturing early in life, can actually influence the way genes work. This is true of animals as well as humans. Mother rats lick their pups repeatedly in the first few hours of life. When rat pups are deprived of that, their brains develop higher levels of a hormone called cortisol, which has a negative effect on the way some of their genes work. As a result, they develop lower intelligence and are less able to cope with stress as adults.
Here’s a striking human example. Genetic research has shown that if people have a short version of one particular gene and they are raised in adverse circumstances, they are predisposed to suffer from depression. But an ongoing study that’s following a large group of New Zealanders has found that if children with the short version of this gene get normal good parenting and nurturing, the gene doesn’t get turned on, so to speak. They don’t develop depression.
Your child was born with a genetic blueprint, which provides a basis for everything from hair colour to the tendency to develop certain abilities or health problems. But this combination of genes does not fully determine your child’s life path. Genes need “instructions.” Genetics might create a potential for a child to be six-foot-four. But poor nutrition can inhibit his growth so that he never reaches that potential. The same applies to a child’s ability to count or relate to other people.
You can’t change your child’s genetic blueprint, but the care and interaction you provide can influence how it plays out. Read on to find out how.
2. Human beings are born “premature”
In medical terms, a premature baby is one born before the 37th week of pregnancy. But, in a neurological sense, all human babies are born premature. Our brains and nervous systems are much less developed at birth than those of other primates. A baby’s brain and its neurological networks mature outside the womb for the first years of life.
That means physical contact (being held, touched and carried a lot) and other kinds of nurturing help a baby’s brain continue to grow and develop after birth.
Experiments have shown that physical contact with parents actually has a biological effect on a baby. Shanker says, ”Early stimulation through touch influences the development of the various brain pathways—paths by which the brain transmits information throughout the body. Touch, in particular, influences the pathways that help people cope with stress and recover from emotional upset.”
This doesn’t mean you have to carry your child every second of babyhood or that some sort of perfect nurturing is necessary for brain development. But it does show that the saying “You can’t spoil a baby” is even truer than we thought. Physical contact like cuddling not only helps babies feel comforted and secure, it plays an important role in helping their brains develop to full potential.
3. care and interaction foster brain development
Obviously a baby needs warmth, food, comfort, diaper changes, baths—the list goes on. But caregiving activities are important not just for a baby’s survival and moment-to-moment well-being, they also provide the setting for all sorts of parent-child interaction that promotes brain development.
When you bend over your baby to change his diaper or give him a bath, you touch him and talk to him. When you carry your child in a sling, he feels secure, he feels your heartbeat and, as you walk around, he feels the motion and takes in lots of sights and sounds. When he cries, you come to him and try to figure out what he needs. As you care for him in these ordinary ways, you and your baby exchange little signals, many of them non-verbal—facial expressions, touch, nurturing sounds. These little exchanges are how you get to know one another. But taking in and making sense of this information is also your baby’s first step on the way to higher-level thinking, including the skills needed for success in school and career.
4. The five senses are the portals to your baby’s brain
Think about how much you love to smell the top of your baby’s head, run your finger gently along her cheek, press your lips to her tiny finger.
Now flip that and imagine how those loving actions feel to your baby. We can only guess. But what neuroscience tells us is that, at birth, your baby’s brain is wired to be especially receptive to that kind of experience. “The very first neural pathways to develop are those which involve the five senses,” Shanker explains. “The more sophisticated pathways that develop later, such as those that allow us to regulate our emotions, to understand ideas, to have empathy and be creative, are built upon the foundation of those initial sensory pathways.”
What should parents do about this? Nothing special. Just enjoy and respond to how your baby looks, feels and smells (well, most of the time), and let her use her senses to explore you and the world. Give her chances to look at, touch and listen to the people and objects that interest her.
5. Babies and toddlers cannot deal with strong emotions by themselves—they need our help
One example of an infant’s neurological immaturity is that, at birth, the most developed parts of the brain are those that deal with the most basic and “primitive” kinds of thought processes, such as strong emotions.
That’s why a delighted three-month-old smiles with her entire body. She waves her arms, kicks her legs, wriggles her belly and looks so happy she can hardly stand it. But it’s also why, when she’s upset, she seems to put every ounce of her energy—voice, facial expression, clenched fists, tensed-up arms and legs—into her cry. Her feelings are out of control so she needs to “borrow” control from an adult. That’s why an important part of being a parent is trying to soothe a baby’s cries.
Research has proven what many people already believed: that a child’s experience of stress and the help he gets (or doesn’t get) from adults to deal with it sets up neurological pathways that influence the way he will handle it throughout life.
This doesn’t mean we must ensure that babies never experience stress, or succeed in calming them down immediately every single time they cry. That’s not possible.
But babies do need our help when they are upset. The repeated experience of being picked up, jiggled or rocked, sung to and cuddled sets a blueprint for the ability to deal with strong feelings and challenges as an adult. As a bonus, it builds intelligence as well.
6. Infant brains are wired for interaction with people
When talking about early brain development, people often use the word stimulation. Some, especially those with products to sell, speak about brain stimulation in a way that suggests that babies need specially designed sights and sounds from toys, dangling mobiles, pictures or videos to get their little brain connections firing and crackling.
Not so. The truth is that babies’ brains are wired to get information from people. Again, this does not mean you have to be in your baby’s face every minute. Just because something is good and important doesn’t mean that more and more and more of it is better. Babies can be overstimulated.
The real point is that no matter how hard anybody tries to sell the idea that a particular toy, book, video or baby activity program provides the “stimulation that little brains need to grow,” remember it’s just hype. The most important stimulation babies need comes from everyday care and interaction with their parents (and others) and from exploring the natural world and the objects, including simple baby toys, in their environments.
7. In early childhood, play equals learning
We sometimes think of learning as structured activity where somebody teaches a specific idea or skill. But children are learning constantly from the moment they are born, and structured learning is a relatively small part of it. Children’s most important learning comes through play. In fact, this is true of all primates. Even baby apes and monkeys learn how to hunt, solve problems and protect themselves through play.
When a baby plays with a shape sorter, she’s learning about spatial relationships and colours, as well as developing hand-eye coordination. When a toddler sits in her bath and pours water in and out of a plastic cup, she’s learning about science—quantity, gravity and sound. As she works out an imaginative story with a playmate, using dolls or stuffed toys, she’s learning how to plan, negotiate and communicate. “Fantasy play is also a way for children to experiment with and learn to understand feelings,” says Shanker. Unstructured play, where children are free to follow their own ideas, provides many learning opportunities and is also a great stress reliever for young children.
There’s a saying that play is a child’s work. But, really, it’s how kids prepare for life.
8. When playing with babies and toddlers, lead by following
As you play with your child, you’ll want to show him things, give him new ideas and help him develop skills. That’s natural. But it’s also important to let your child, even a little baby, take the lead at times. Essentially that means observing your baby, then basing your response or action on what seems to interest him.
It can start very simply. A dad holding his infant, Dylan, notices that he seems to be looking at the ceiling fan. Daddy says, “Oh, do you like that fan?” He takes his baby over for a closer look.
Seven months later, they are playing with blocks. Sometimes Daddy builds a tower and the baby knocks it down with glee. Other times Dad waits to see what the boy will do.
Dylan picks up a block and holds it out. Dad takes it and says, “What can we do with this red block?” He offers it back. Dylan takes it and places it on the floor. He picks up another and holds it out. Dad takes it and puts it on top of the red block. Then Dad picks up a green block and holds it out. Dylan takes it and tries to put it on the tower.
Babies love this kind of back and forth play with their parents. But it also prepares them to take the initiative in their own learning. “When children are learning, we can only show and teach them so much,” says Shanker. “At some point the child has to take a leap on his own. When you follow your baby’s lead during play, you’re giving him practice at taking those little leaps, and providing the emotional support he needs to make that leap.”
9. Some of the most important parts of early literacy have nothing to do with books or letters or words printed on a page
Literacy is very important in our information-oriented society. Reading and writing are also foundation skills for school success. Lots of experts tell parents to read and share books with babies—right from the start, people sometimes say.
But some of the most important aspects of early literacy have nothing to do with books. For example, one of the earliest forms of literacy development takes place when babies and toddlers look at the faces of people who talk to them, and they gradually start to make connections between the sounds they hear and the way people’s lips move. “Watching those lip movements helps children learn to connect sounds and words. That’s one of the foundations for reading,” says Shanker.
Human languages have all sorts of different phonemes—sounds that are put together to make words. Children need to hear the sounds of their language repeatedly so they can make the neural connections they need and eliminate the ones they don’t need. Development of this and other basic language abilities, even before they can talk, paves the way for the ability to read, which comes much later.
It’s good to introduce babies to books in their first year, but the early literacy experience that babies need most is language interaction—singing songs, pointing out and naming objects in and around your house, and taking part in those little everyday parent-child conversations you have as you play with and care for them.
10. You don’t have to be an expert in brain science to give your baby what she needs for proper brain development
One of the great things about babies is that they are born with features that draw us to them and make us want to provide the kind of care, interaction and experience their little brains need. It’s their round cheeks, their smiles, the way their eyes lock with ours and, of course, the alarming nature of their cry. All of these behaviours and attributes were designed to attract us and make us respond. In many ways, the key to nurturing babies’ brain development is simply to allow ourselves to be captivated by our babies—to develop a feeling of connection with them and do our best to learn how to care for them.
There are exceptions. Some children are born with problems that require special care, stimulation and experience. But for the most part, if you can tune in to your baby, try to read her signals and do your best to give her what she seems to need, you’ll nurture her brain very well indeed—whether or not you know the first thing about human neurological development, and regardless of the imperfections we all bring to the task.
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